What is Cover Your Ass

"Cover your ass" refers to a tactic used by workers and organizations to share or divert blame or provide a disclaimer should something go wrong.  "Covering your ass" is usually done in big projects where an employee may choose to avoid taking credit for doing a critical part of the project just in case it goes bad. It may entail going back to "cover the bases" thereby checking one's work. It may also involve the action of protecting oneself by anticipating potential problems and addressing them beforehand, either with a warning or corrective action. 

Understanding Cover Your Ass

Put simply, to cover one's ass is to diffuse responsibility. The euphemism "cover your ass" may be considered vulgar by some, so there are a number of substitutions. They include the acronym "C.Y.A.," "cover your butt," "cover your rear," or "cover your actions." It may also be referred to as "posterior protection."

Individuals "cover their asses" to avoid possible criticism for a failure or an unforeseen problem in a project or task. The tactic may also be used to avoid or mitigate legal action or other possible penalties. Covering one's ass is most frequent in highly regulated or bureaucratic organizations in which there exists the possibility for unforeseen criticism or scrutiny due to several layers of (often redundant) oversight. It may also occur when a project is especially large or complex and requires the work of many people working independently and/or far from one another. In such cases no one person can have a full view of the project and participants may seek to limit their liability for things that are out of their control.

Key Takeaways

  • Cover your ass, also commonly referred to as "C.Y.A" is a strategy used by workers or employees to diffuse responsibility to avoid possible future criticism or responsibility for a failed or potentially liable project.
  • It is most commonly used in highly-regulated and bureaucratic organizations or in projects where people work independently and/or far from one another.
  • In some instances, an effort to cover one's ass may be misinterpreted and a genuine warning may be ignored.

"Cover Your Ass" Definition

"Cover your ass" in the context of a bureaucracy is defined by language expert William Safire in Safire's Political Dictionary as "the bureaucratic technique of averting future accusations of policy error or wrongdoing by deflecting responsibility in advance." 

Example of "Cover Your Ass"

There may be many strategies used to cover one's ass. For example, if the acceptance or rejection of a crucial project relies on your forecast of cash flows for future years, you may include a footnote that your estimates were based on data provided by another employee in case your forecasts are completely wrong. This practice is often frowned upon as potentially "throwing your colleague under the bus."

Sometimes, an effort to cover one's ass may be misinterpreted and what is a genuine warning may not be heeded. In many organizations, what is normal paperwork, recordkeeping or quality control may be considered a formal way of "covering one's ass."

For example, sometimes accountants escape responsibility for fudging or reporting wrong numbers by providing disclaimers or conditions to the numbers. In some instances, the balance sheets also contain statements that are a warning detailing problems with the numbers.